Tuesday, December 29, 2015
As I approached the end of this very long series on authority, I realized that 16 parts wouldn’t quite suffice. Because of some unfortunate circumstances involving friends of mine, I’ve been forced to look at priesthood in a different light. I want to share some of my thoughts, but I promise this is the last post in this long series.
What I have concluded is that when all is said and done, all the analysis in the world will matter very little unless priesthood is efficacious, unless it does what we (and God) want it to do. And for me this has become a somewhat perplexing matter. How do we gauge the efficacy of priesthood? Certainly priesthood has provided a stable hierarchical leadership structure based on the concepts of quorums and keys. But is that all priesthood is—a form of governing authority? As discussed in earlier posts, the institutional Church could probably have survived and thrived just fine under some other organizing principle. Priesthood is just one of several possibilities for institutional authority.
Perhaps a key to this question is in D&C 84:20–21: “Therefore, in the ordinances [of the priesthood], the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh.” It is apparently in the ordinances of the priesthood that its efficacy is established. But the effectiveness of ordinances is often such a private, personal matter. For instance, does baptism work? Work at what? Well, one purpose of baptism is to provide a way for us to make a covenant with God. It certainly does this, but that is more a legalistic function. It also signifies our entry into the Church, but that is an institutional, record-keeping sort of matter. Beyond these functions, baptism is supposed to produce some kind of spiritual effect. How do we know if it does this? That is something that can only be answered by each person, looking deep inside for evidence of a spiritual rebirth. In my own case, I don’t even remember my own baptism. My only memory of that distant day is that a fellow baptismal candidate was so scared of the water that she clung to the railing and cried and refused to enter the font. She was baptized the next month, I believe, but her trauma completely distracted me from the significance of my own baptism. Consequently, I have no memory of entering the water myself. And being baptized at age eight, I really have a hard time saying that my baptism made any sort of noticeable spiritual difference in my life.
What about the sacrament? How do we know if it is efficacious? Again, this is a question we can only answer individually, as we search our own hearts. My own experience is that I’ve never had any sort of spiritual experience related to the sacrament. I’m sure that’s more a reflection on my state of spiritual insensitivity than on the ordinance itself, and I have heard others express their feelings about how much the sacrament means to them. Still, there is no way to accurately assess the effectiveness of the sacrament.
But there is one particular ordinance that I believe we can use—perhaps because it is supposed to produce a more visible physical effect—to gauge the efficacy of Mormon priesthood. It is the giving of health blessings. Because these blessings result in either the healing of the recipient or the failure to heal, I believe we have to consider these blessings as evidence as we look at the inherent efficacy of the priesthood we claim. And here I must admit that I am of two minds.
Elder Miller and the Snake
I would be the first to admit that there are indeed miracles associated with priesthood blessings. I have never been deathly ill myself, but I have received a couple of blessings in my life for minor health inconveniences that I believe were effective. And on my office wall I have a small photo of a missionary holding a very dead six-foot-long snake by the tail. I scanned it so you can see it. Whenever I look at this picture, it reminds me that priesthood blessings can sometimes have very dramatic results. I received this snapshot from a mission president in the Philippines when I was there on assignment for the Liahona interviewing members for a story that appeared in the Church’s international magazine and in the Ensign. Along with the photograph, I received a handwritten account from Elder Brandon Miller about the snake. This is how the Liahona version of his story goes:
It was the rainy season in the Philippines and had been raining all day. Rain often brought unwanted creatures into our house—usually spiders, rats, and such.
As my companion and I arrived home after a day of proselyting, we noticed a light on at our neighbors’ house and we thought we would visit them. We decided to stop at our house and pick up some photographs of our families to show them.
We kept the pictures on the bottom shelf between our beds. As I reached for mine, I suddenly felt a pain in my right hand. Looking down, I saw that a snake had just bitten me.
I called to my companion, Elder Regis, and he ran to see what the problem was. I showed him the blood on my hand and said I’d been bitten by a snake. A neighbor ran in because of the commotion and helped us look for the snake. We found it when it struck from under the bed at a board Elder Regis was holding. The neighbor cried out, “That’s a Philippine cobra!”
Elder Regis killed the snake. I realized I was getting dizzy, so we rushed to Bishop Rotor’s house because he had some experience treating snakebites. He hurriedly began to do what he could to help me.
My chest was becoming heavy, and it was hard to breathe. A darkness seemed to cloud my thoughts, and I began to lose consciousness. Then I heard a voice say, “If you want to finish your mission on earth, you need a blessing.”
I stayed conscious long enough to say, “Will you give me a blessing?”
The bishop answered, “Yes, just let me finish this first.” It was hard for me to stay alert, but I heard the voice persist, “You need a blessing now. You cannot wait.” This time I said in a commanding voice, “Give me a blessing!”
I don’t remember the words of the blessing my companion and Bishop Rotor gave me. But I put all my trust in the Lord and His priesthood. During the prayer I began to come to my senses, and I vomited repeatedly. As I heard the final words of the blessing, the vomiting stopped. I was aware of my surroundings and felt a warm feeling of comfort and love fill my body. I knew that my Father in Heaven loved me and I would be OK.
My zone leader, Elder Howarth, brought to the bishop’s home a doctor who was investigating the Church. By this time about two hours had passed. We left for a hospital located about an hour away from where I was serving.
On the way the doctor asked me to tell him what had happened. Elder Howarth said, “Doctor, shouldn’t we speed up?” The doctor’s answer was, “Why? He should already be dead. He is a lucky man.” The Philippine cobra is the deadliest snake in the Philippines.1
That’s quite a story. As I think about it from this distance, I have two thoughts. First, I find it interesting that the voice told him he needed a blessing. Oddly, the voice, as Elder Miller remembered it, didn’t say “priesthood blessing,” but just “blessing.” I don’t know if that is significant, especially since a Mormon today would understand “blessing” to mean “priesthood blessing,” but that omission did catch my attention. Of course, God could just as easily have healed him without any sort of priesthood ritual. But for some reason he was instructed to get a blessing. I’ve thought about that often, and I don’t really have a good explanation for it. It is simply what the voice told him.
Second, the cynic in me says, “Well, there must be another explanation.” As it turns out, depending on the list you use and the criteria those lists are based on, the Philippine cobra ranks anywhere from the second to the ninth most venomous snake on earth. But its bite doesn’t always cause death. In fact, in one study of 39 victims of Philippine cobra bites, only two died. Other studies suggest the mortality rate for cobra bites is less than 10 percent. The symptoms Elder Miller described, however, are exactly right for a cobra bite. The relevant point here is that, regardless of statistical probabilities or any other factors, the rapidity with which Elder Miller recovered is astonishing. So I would have to say that the blessing he received was indeed efficacious. Maybe he would have survived anyway, but the message he received from the voice seemed to indicate otherwise.
This is a miraculous story, but unfortunately life is never so simple. For every Brandon Miller story, there are several stories that don’t turn out so well. In recent weeks, I have had a fellow ward member and a long-time friend die of cancer after both received priesthood blessings and both families felt strongly that their loved one was supposed to live. My long-time friend succumbed to cancer after a brutal four-year battle. He was a counselor in a stake presidency. He received priesthood blessings promising him he would be healed. He and his family exercised great faith and did everything they could to beat the disease, including surgeries, chemo, radiation, and, eventually, experimental treatments. They felt they were receiving spiritual assurances all along the way that he was supposed to be healed. They viewed certain fortuitous developments as tiny miracles that inspired confidence in the desired outcome. But in the end, their faith and prayers and optimism and the promises given through priesthood blessings were less potent than the cancer.
This story is a virtual repeat of the ordeal a different neighbor of ours went through a couple of years ago. Different form of cancer, same priesthood promises, same level of righteous living, same faith, same prayers, same result. We try to explain these failures away. Maybe their faith was insufficient. Maybe the person giving the blessing misunderstood the promptings of the Spirit. Maybe the Lord just did not want the cancer victim to live. But I have a hard time buying these explanations. I have another friend whose sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer while her husband was serving as a mission president. She received a priesthood blessing from an Apostle, who blessed her that she would be healed. But she died within months. What are we to think? If an Apostle can’t get the correct inspiration, then what hope do the rest of us mere mortals have? How do we explain the seeming inconsistency of results from priesthood blessings? I don’t have an answer for this.
I have an account, written in first person, supposedly, by my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Sirls Terry, who was a captain in a pioneer company. Let me quote him:
In crossing the plains coming to the Valley, I was put in charge of a company of Saints as Captain. We left Florence the last of June, 1857. For the five hundred mile trip, I had hard work to get the company along as they were not used to traveling with oxen. In crossing Loop Fork, one branch of the Platt River we could not go straight across. It was very high. We had to start in and then go up stream half a mile then cross to the other side.
We were all day in getting over. In getting the teams across I crossed the river eleven times. The last time was after dark. I could only see my way by camp fires on the other side of the river.
When going to bed I heard a rap at my wagon. “Oh Captain, my daughter is dead.” It was Brother James Stevenson; I dressed myself and went to his wagon. His daughter, Lucy, had passed to the other side. She was dead. I sent for Captain John Dustin who was Captain of the second ten. Brother Dustin was a man of great faith. We administered to her. But she did not revive. She did not come back to life. After some time we administered again, but of no use. She still layed in death’s arms.
I spoke to Brother Dustin and asked him to stay with the family, that I would go out, but would come back soon. I went to my wagon and got my Temple clothes. I went off in the darkness a quarter of a mile. I dressed myself in my Temple clothes. I knelt down and asked my Heavenly Father in the name of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, that if it was His will that the spirit of the young sister return to its body.
After I had returned I found Sister Lucy still dead, the family were all crying. I said to Brother Dustin, we will administer to her again. We placed our hands upon her head and I asked my Heavenly Father that her spirit might return to its body. Before we took our hands off her head her Spirit returned and she came to life. The time altogether was one hour. She came to the Valley and was married.
The last sentence of this story is pretty funny if you know what really happened. Yes, she “was married.” She became Thomas Sirls Terry’s third wife. But it didn’t last. She liked to dance, and Thomas didn’t, so she left him. Some thanks for raising you from the dead, huh? But how reliable is this story? I’ve been trying to figure that out for years. This account comes from a book compiled about the Thomas Sirls Terry family by Nora Lund, who is now dead, so I can’t ask here where she found it. It isn’t part of Thomas Sirls Terry’s official personal history. Lund attached it to the end of the personal history with only this note of explanation: “Due to the length of Grandfather’s diary it will not be possible to record it all in this book. From here on, excerpts will be included quoted in his own words.” The only problem is that this story of raising Lucy Stevenson from the dead is, oddly, not mentioned in his pioneer diary from 1857, which is housed in the Church History Library. So I have no clue where Nora Lund found this story. Maybe in some other diary? If so, it’s probably gathering dust in the attic of one of my distant cousins. The problem is that I can’t verify that the story was actually recorded by Thomas Sirls in his own handwriting. So what am I supposed to make of it? It’s quite a story if it’s true. It sounds true, but I can’t be sure.
I have another story, this one very close to home, that doesn’t have any historical ambiguity, but I still have questions about it. In January of 1989, my wife began experiencing problems with her third pregnancy. She asked me to give her a blessing. I prayed for guidance and felt impressed that the baby was supposed to live, so I blessed her accordingly. The problems persisted, and at five months she lost the amniotic fluid, which put her in the hospital for the duration, whatever that might be. It turned out to be about a month, at which point she went into labor, and the baby was delivered by emergency C-section. My wife had been transferred to University Hospital in Salt Lake City because it was one of the few hospitals that had an experimental lubricant (surfactant) for preemies’ lungs that might give our baby more of a chance.
The baby was born at 10:58 p.m., and they took him immediately to the newborn intensive care unit (NICU), while I stayed with my wife because of some complications during the C-section. At some point during the night, a nurse came to get me. Things weren’t looking good, and they thought I should be there. They put me in a rocking chair, and I watched while they tried everything they could to save this little blue-gray, two-pound-ten-ounce preemie. But nothing was working. I remember sitting there in that chair, having a quiet conversation with God. I told him what I had felt when I gave my wife the requested blessing. I still felt that the baby was supposed to live. So I watched patiently. They were down to their last resort, a medication that was supposed to expand the blood vessels to hopefully allow more oxygen to get from the severely underdeveloped lungs to the rest of the little body. Well, it worked.
Troy went through a very difficult ordeal, and I can’t count the number of times the doctors and nurses gave us either bad news or hopeless prognoses, but after three months we were able to bring him home. Troy is now 26 and is dealing with his own set of challenges, but lung health is not one of them. Here again, though, I am not sure exactly what role the priesthood blessing I gave played in his survival. Who am I to gauge just what impact that blessing had in the outcome of that precarious situation? All I know is that the feeling I had was accurate. Troy was supposed to live. But would he have lived without the priesthood blessing? Without our faith in that blessing? That’s a tough question.
A Few Final Words
So what can we conclude about priesthood health blessings? Only that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they produce miraculous results. Sometimes the results are positive, but we don’t know exactly what role the blessing played. Sometimes they don’t work at all, in spite of great faith and even apostolic assurances. And we don’t really know why they do or don’t work. There seems to be no pattern, only random effectiveness. Which, for me, simply adds one more question to the long list of questions I’ve brought up in this series of posts on authority. As far as I’m concerned, we are not even close to figuring out authority in the Church. It is, like so many other aspects of our religion, not as cut and dried as we would like to believe.
And that is where I will leave it. Thanks for enduring seventeen weeks of posts on this perplexing topic. Next week, with the new year, on to a new topic too.
1. Brandon J. Miller, “I Needed a Blessing,” Liahona 25, no. 9 (September 2001): 42, 44. There is an interesting side story here. When I submitted this account to be published, my good colleagues at the Ensign told me there was no way they could publish a story about a voice from an unseen source speaking to someone. I thought that odd, but they were adamant. So the Ensign version reads, “Then I had a distinct impression that if I wanted to finish my mission on earth, I needed a blessing.” No voice, just a “distinct impression.” And when the bishop delayed, “the impression came again, extremely strong, that I needed a blessing now. I could not wait.” Brandon J. Miller, “I Needed a Blessing,” Ensign 31, no. 9 (September 2001): 64–65. Since I worked at the Liahona at the time, I insisted that we print the story as Elder Miller told it, so we have the odd circumstance here of one Church magazine publishing the true version of a story and another Church magazine publishing a version that isn’t quite true. So it goes.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
In the October 2010 general conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed two different lines of communication from the Lord: the personal line of prayer and inspiration through the Holy Spirit and the priesthood line of counsel and direction from institutional authority. Elder Oaks pointed out that both lines are necessary: “We must use both the personal line and the priesthood line in proper balance to achieve the growth that is the purpose of mortal life.”1 But what happens, in an imperfect world, when inspiration coming through the personal line happens to be out of harmony with communication coming through the priesthood line? Often, when this occurs, the individual is in error and needs to reexamine his or her life and the source of the inspiration. But it is also possible for direction through the priesthood channel to be in error. Since priesthood leaders are not infallible, and since the whisperings of the Spirit are often difficult to decipher, this is actually more than a possibility. Let me illustrate with a close-to-home example.
Turning Down Callings
Many years ago my wife received a call from our bishop to serve as ward Primary president. Being a good soldier, she accepted. But immediately afterward she had a very unsettled feeling—call it a stupor of thought, but it was actually more troubling and more focused than a mere stupor. It wasn’t just that she was a young mother with two little children and was feeling overwhelmed. Something more fundamental was amiss. So, after praying about it and talking it over with me, she decided to go back to the bishop and explain her unease. In essence, with a great deal more tact than I possess, she told him she thought his inspiration was faulty and asked for a second opinion. Well, he was a humble man, and he prayed about it, and the next morning he called her and said, “Sister Terry, you’re right. This calling is not for you at this time.” At that time we didn’t know why this had happened, but not many weeks later my wife began a long ordeal that resulted in the birth of our third child—twelve weeks early—and the ensuing roller coaster ride that would have prevented her from fulfilling this calling. A few years later, after life had settled down a bit, the same call came from a different bishop, and she accepted with no feelings of unease.
In contrast to this experience, consider another woman’s story. Her bishop extended to her a calling to write the script and music for a special program celebrating the Relief Society’s birthday. Normally she would have been happy to accept such a calling, but this time she had a dark feeling and felt strongly that she was being prompted to turn the calling down. When she told the bishop what she was feeling, he questioned her faith and berated her for not believing in his right to receive revelation for his ward. She tried to assure him that she was not questioning his right to revelation, but that she seemed to be receiving a revelation as well. A few days later, her father suffered a massive heart attack and was hospitalized for several weeks before passing away. During the same period of time she would have been preparing for the Relief Society program had she accepted the calling, she was instead spending time with her father and then planning his funeral.
So, how do we know when our leaders’ inspiration may be faulty, or their decisions in error? Just the way my wife and this other woman came to know that their callings were not right—by listening to the Spirit and to their own feelings. Most often the counsel and requirements and callings that come to us from our leaders don’t require a great deal of consideration or prayer, but sometimes they do. And in certain situations, we need to be courageous enough to confront them about it, or to respectfully disobey, or even at times to appeal to higher authorities. Many of the participants in the Mountain Meadows Massacre felt a great sense of dismay over what their leaders were asking them to do. But they went against their better instincts. If even a handful of them had stood up for what they felt was right, they could have prevented a terrible tragedy and an embarrassment to the Church that has now plagued us for over 150 years.
I have seen a particular quote a couple of times recently claiming that we will be blessed for following our leaders, even if they are wrong. But I cannot imagine the perpetrators of the massacre at Mountain Meadows earning any special blessings for their obedience. This matter of obedience to authority figures is more complicated than we are often led to believe, and the pressure to conform is very strong in the Church. Thus, although “follow the Brethren” is generally a good rule, we need to understand that it is not a blanket requirement covering every possible situation.
A Culture of Conformity
When I was a young student in a BYU singles ward, I had an elders quorum president who devised an ingenious plan to achieve 100 percent home teaching. He informed us that if we didn’t complete and report our home teaching by the twentieth of each month, he and his counselors would go out and do it for us. As I recall, his tone was somewhat incriminatory as he explained the new program. Now, I’m sure he had nothing but the finest of motives. But it was apparent that the numbers were more important to him than the people. It was also evident that his expectations were not entirely optimistic. The resulting impression was that he was trying to coerce or manipulate us into performing our priesthood duties. As I’ve considered his program for preventing failure in home teaching, I’ve concluded that it had striking similarities to another plan that promised sure success with no possibility for failure—Lucifer’s plan in the premortal existence. This fallen angel may have tried to coerce us to do right, but if we happened to fall short, we still didn’t need to worry—he would have saved us anyway, in our sins.
Our Heavenly Father, by contrast, will almost never infringe upon our free agency—and I this term that has fallen out of favor intentionally, because we are not just agents in the sense that we are responsible to carry out the will of another (our Heavenly Father in this instance); we are free agents. “Agents unto themselves” (D&C 58:28) is the term the Lord used to describe us, and we are free to use our agency to do his will or to thwart it if we so choose. I’ve lived for close to sixty years now, and in those six decades I’ve come to the conclusion that there is virtually nothing more sacred to our Eternal Father than our freedom to choose. Indeed, he is a remarkably hands-off parent, preferring to nudge or entice rather than shove or demand. It appears he is determined to allow us to have our own experiences, live our own lives, face the consequences for our decisions and actions, and earn both our rewards and our punishments. There is undoubtedly a lesson here about the importance of individuality in the eternal scheme of things. And our pains and conflicts and frustrations and sorrows shape us much more effectively than a life of ease and serenity and perpetual pleasure ever could. Consequently, God’s perfect commitment to our free agency also involves huge allowances for us to fail. And it must. If we are not allowed the freedom to fail, we will most certainly fail anyway—at the only thing that really matters, namely, our ultimate goal of becoming like our Lord and Savior.
To our Heavenly Father, individuals are always more important than any measurable organizational success. He doesn’t manage by the numbers. He leads us, as individuals, back into his presence, IF we will follow. This conditional statement brings up the incompatible notions of control and liberality. Some in the Church—primarily those who believe they are managing the Saints to heaven—seek to control not only outcomes but also personal choices. They seek to take the “if” away, and this interferes with free agency. Thus, there exists in the organizational Church great pressure for its members to conform unquestioningly to an approved pattern of both thought and behavior.
Conformity has in many ways replaced individual, intelligent expressions of righteousness in the Church. In a very real sense, organizational pressure to conform has supplanted the simple invitation to follow. Consequently, conformity has not only replaced an appropriate tolerance for failure but in the process has become its own brand of failure. The higher law, which is always open-ended and can be fulfilled in myriad unprescribed ways, is being supplanted by a lesser law, which always focuses on specific minimum requirements.
Although the most visible manifestation of conformity among Latter-day Saints is probably the corporate uniform required explicitly of Church employees at work and implicitly of all priesthood holders at Sunday worship services, other forms of conformity are more troubling. Conformity is ultimately a state of mind, not merely a matter of appearance. Indeed, we seem to have developed a culture of conformity in the Church, a socially reinforced resistance to new or original ideas and patterns that impedes our ability to spontaneously follow the Spirit or express any appreciable degree of individuality. It most certainly impedes our ability to entertain unforeseen possibilities and our willingness to embrace change.
It is interesting to observe that seventy years after J. Golden Kimball’s death, Church members who never heard him speak still love to tell stories about Mormonism’s cussing, coffee-drinking General Authority and still purchase books about him.2 Uncle Golden was, of course, beloved by his contemporaries—after Brigham Young’s, his was the best-attended funeral in Utah Mormondom’s first century—but what is it about this man that still fascinates Latter-day Saints? The answer is obvious. He didn’t fit the devout, restrained pattern of propriety we’ve come to expect of Church leaders at all levels. He was unpredictable, uncontrollable, and impetuous, yet loyal through and through. And we find this extraordinarily refreshing. But we realize with regret that a J. Golden Kimball will never again appear in the Church hierarchy. And soon even the idea that such a man ever did exist in Mormondom will fade away.
Perhaps of greatest concern, the culture of conformity we have nurtured in the Church often reveals itself in the unwillingness—perhaps even the inability—of its members to “think outside the box” and to question or even examine authoritative statements, ill-defined doctrines, and strictly cultural traditions. In contrast to the mental rigidity of many of today’s Saints, Terryl Givens points out that a common activity in the Church in Joseph Smith’s day was the debating of gospel questions such as “Was it, or was it not, the design of Christ to establish His gospel by miracles?” and “Was it necessary for God to reveal Himself to mankind in order for their happiness?”3 Joseph not only encouraged and attended these debates, but he also participated occasionally. In February 1842, the Prophet recorded that he spent an evening attending a debate, adding that “at this time debates were held weekly, and entered into by men of the first talents in the city, young and old, for the purpose of eliciting truth, acquiring knowledge, and improving in public speaking.”4
Today, such debating has revived after a fashion, courtesy of the Internet and the blogosphere, where anonymity provides some protection for participants who may fear Church censure. But this spirit of debate in “eliciting truth” has not spilled over very effectively into our meetings and classes, where the official Church curriculum offers only narrow doctrinal explanations and shallow “discussion” questions for the Saints’ gospel study and teaching opportunities, and it certainly has not attracted the participation of top Church leaders, as in Joseph Smith’s day.
My friend Warner Woodworth suggested almost thirty years ago that BYU students were being molded into the corporate framework “to make them good, loyal servants of power.” He, like Joseph Smith, recognized “a special need for confrontation with alternative ideas” in order to arrive at certain crucial truths. He then told of a visiting Stanford professor who mentioned that “while he observed BYU students to be pleasant individuals, their educations were hampered by a lack of classroom conflict and critical thinking.” According to Woodworth, we need “a certain kind of barefooted, ragamuffin, irreverent spirit of debate. Too many Mormons seem to believe that the glory of God is conformity, not intelligence.”5
How, we might ask—we acolytes of Joseph Smith, the world’s premier questioner and the ultimate nonconformist—how did we ever arrive at such a destination? The answer, I believe, has a great deal to do with how we view authority, how we view our relationship with God, and what we understand about the source of his authority, as discussed in part 14 of this series. This is certainly a topic we ought to spend a lot more time discussing and thinking about.
1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Two Lines of Communication,” Ensign 40, no. 11 (November 2010): 86.
2. See, for instance, Eric A. Eliason, The J. Golden Kimball Stories (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
3. Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 80–81.
4. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 4:513–14.
5. Warner P. Woodworth, “Brave New Bureaucracy,” Dialogue 20, no. 3 (1987): 31.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The first fourteen posts in this series have discussed various aspects of authority. But standing opposite the sometimes perplexing issues surrounding authority are the parallel and equally challenging questions relating to obedience. Obedience, we sometimes hear in the Church, is the first law of heaven. But this has never made much sense to me. Obedience isn’t a law at all. We can be obedient to laws, but we can’t be obedient to obedience. That is circular thinking. Obedience is crucial to our eventual exaltation, but we must recognize a difference between obedience to God—to his laws and commandments, to the conscience he has given us, or to his authorized servants when they are speaking for him—and obedience to man (even when called by God but not necessarily speaking for him) or, especially, to arbitrary institutional authority.
The notion of obedience to institutional authority has grown increasingly rigid over the years as the Church has become ever more centralized and regimented in its policies and programs and as personal, charismatic authority has retreated into the background. Indeed, the institutional Church (or local pieces of it) sometimes demands a blind, mindless conformance to capricious organizational requirements rather than an informed obedience to God or to his servants who are acting as his agents. The difficulty, of course, lies in discerning when our leaders are acting as God’s agents from when they are acting as agents of institutional precedent or, most troubling, when they are merely speaking for themselves, since in most instances they don’t explicitly tell us when they are speaking for God and sometimes they even encourage us to believe they are always acting under inspiration, even at the local level. But this creates difficulties. Mortals, even the most righteous and inspired among us, are not perfect and at times make mistakes and misinterpret the whisperings of the Spirit. Not surprisingly, then, Latter-day Saints have struggled with the complex issue of obeying mortal leaders from the earliest days of the Restored Church. The sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit requirement of strict, perpetual obedience to priesthood authority has been with us from the beginning of the Restoration and has caused a good deal of grief and embarrassment from time to time.
De Facto Infallibility
“Follow the Brethren” is a maxim Latter-day Saints are often counseled to accept as a blanket rule, but life is never quite so simplistic, particularly in an organization as complex as the Church. In the seven years I spent working as an editor at Church magazines, I became acutely aware of the difficulties this rule creates in the corporate side of the institution. Basically, what you have at Church headquarters are departments of employees supervised by hired managers who are in turn answerable to General Authorities who serve as executive directors and advisers to the departments. On the surface, this structure is probably not dissimilar to that of many capitalist and government organizations. The primary differences—and many of the difficulties—arise from the fact that in the Church bureaucracy, virtually all decisions, recommendations, and even opinions of upper management (General Authorities) are treated by professional middle managers as divinely inspired (and therefore incontestable), even when these middle managers believe otherwise.
Although nothing in LDS scripture or doctrine insists that Church leaders are infallible, when we transform the counsel to follow the Brethren into an incontestable rule, we have, in effect, granted our leaders de facto infallibility. In doing so, we also totally eliminate the democratic or participatory element in Church governance that I have discussed in previous posts. As may be expected, the notion of de facto infallibility does not exist just in the Church employment structure; ordinary Latter-day Saints are expected to endorse it in their individual lives. Sometimes this philosophy is expressed rather brazenly, as in the following statement that appeared in the 1945 Improvement Era: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”1
When a Unitarian minister, J. Raymond Cope, questioned this statement, he received assurance from President George Albert Smith that “the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church.”2 It should be noted, however, that this was President Smith’s private correspondence with Cope and that the general Church membership never received an official notification that this statement was in error. Indeed, similar statements have since appeared from time to time, such as President N. Eldon Tanner’s declaration in a 1979 First Presidency Message, “When the prophet speaks the debate is over.”3
Where this idea of infallibility first sprouted in the Church is unclear. I suppose its roots lie in our distant past, long before the Church became a corporate entity. In some ways, Joseph Smith was more than a century ahead of his time, but even he struggled with the competing demands of leading by both revelation and common consent. Over the course of his fourteen years as Church president, he accumulated increasing levels of power and influence, both within the Church and in the surrounding community, to the point that the Saints’ neighbors grew uneasy with this concentration of power in one person. In Nauvoo, for instance, Joseph was not just president of the Church; he was also mayor, chief magistrate of the Nauvoo municipal court, head of the largest militia in the state, and even postmaster. As he accumulated power, the democratic element in the Church diminished. After his death, this pattern continued and perhaps even intensified during Brigham Young’s thirty years as prophet, possibly necessitated by the struggle to survive in the arid West. Over the next century, the Church evolved from a desert theodictatorship into what we might describe as a modern corporate hierarchy. The constant over this long period, however, was the retreat of the idea of democracy in the Church, to the point that we now hear members glibly reminding each other that “the Church isn’t a democracy,” totally oblivious to the democratic impulse the Lord built into the organization (including in its very name) and reminders such as James E. Talmage’s statement that the Church is a “theodemocracy.”4 The exact origin of autocratic tendencies doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is that an atmosphere of blind obedience and mindless conformity has developed over time (the inevitable fruit of de facto infallibility), and this creates serious challenges in the modern Church for members and leaders alike.
Let me illustrate what I mean by de facto infallibility with an example from the not-too-distant past. A year or two after I left Church magazines, one of my colleagues told me about a directive the magazine staffs were laboring under. Apparently, one of the General Authorities assigned to supervise the Curriculum Department issued an edict that the magazines were no longer to show photographs of anyone wearing denim. Now, unless there has been an unannounced revelation that denim is evil, we can only assume that this was simply an individual inflicting a personal bias on a corner of the kingdom.
As you can imagine, this created difficulties for the magazines, particularly the New Era. Magazine editors were routinely sent out to various parts of the world to interview members and write stories about the “local” Church. They generally took photographs of the people to include with their stories, and sometimes it was impossible to control how these members were dressed. In fact, in some areas, denim may have been their “best dress.” New Era staffers often wrote stories about youth participating in service projects or other outdoor activities. Invariably, many of the kids wore denim. So how did the magazine employees comply with this practically impossible requirement? Well, the designers simply used digital wizardry (Photoshop) to magically transform jeans into slacks. I’m sure some of them felt this was dishonest, but what other alternative did they have? Questioning the General Authority’s directive was simply not an option. De facto infallibility.
Beyond Blind Obedience
Perhaps it would be profitable to consider the reasoning of Elder B. H. Roberts, who candidly discussed the limited nature of God’s direct involvement in day-to-day Church governance in an Improvement Era article at the time of the Reed Smoot Senate hearings—when questions arose about the autonomy of Church leaders. Wrote Roberts:
There is nothing in the doctrines of the Church which makes it necessary to believe that [men are constantly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit], even . . . men who are high officials of the Church. When we consider the imperfections of men, their passions and prejudices, that mar the Spirit of God in them, happy is the man who can occasionally ascend to the spiritual heights of inspiration and commune with God! . . .
We should recognize the fact that we do many things by our own uninspired intelligence for the issues of which we are ourselves responsible. . . . He will help men at need, but I think it improper to assign every word and every act of a man to an inspiration from the Lord. Were that the case, we would have to acknowledge ourselves as being wholly taken possession of by the Lord, being neither permitted to go to the right nor the left only as he guided us. There could then be no error made, nor blunder in judgment; free agency would be taken away, and the development of human intelligence prevented. Hence, I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs of the Church; not even good men, though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.5
Elder Roberts’s observation not only makes good sense, but it must be true, otherwise the Lord’s chosen servants would be nothing more than automatons and would be bereft of moral agency, severely impeded in their own growth and development. Now, I’m not suggesting that every decision the Brethren make is flawed or should be questioned. To the contrary, most decisions are wise and good and should be supported, even if just for the sake of harmony and cooperation. But “most” is not “all,” and this is the difference between messy reality and the illusion of infallibility. There are exceptions to virtually every rule. And Church leaders, like the rest of us, are not infallible.
Much of the time, as B. H. Roberts suggested, Church leaders are not operating under direct guidance of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith himself said that “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.”6 So, if we receive from priesthood authority a directive that troubles us, what are we to do? Do we just follow, trusting that the leader is inspired, and lay the blame at his feet if disaster follows? This is exactly what happened at Mountain Meadows in September 1857, which illustrates why blind obedience to institutional authority is one of the most dangerous of all organizational values. No, first and always our responsibility is to God, and that responsibility involves the exercise of our conscience, our agency, and the principle of personal accountability.
Brigham Young criticized those who mindlessly accept Church leaders’ statements:
These persons do not depend upon themselves for salvation, but upon another of their poor, weak, fellow mortals. . . . Say they, . . . I depend upon you, brother Joseph, or upon you, brother Brigham, upon you, brother Heber, or upon you, brother James; I believe your judgment is superior to mine, and consequently I let you judge for me. . . . Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influence of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate.7
Indicating that even inspired leaders are fallible, President Young also declared: “How often has it been taught that if you depend entirely upon the voice, judgment, and sagacity of those appointed to lead you, and neglect to enjoy the Spirit for yourselves, how easily you may be led into error.”8
Finally, he stated: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence.”9
Elder Harold B. Lee echoed Brigham Young’s sentiments: “It is not alone sufficient for us as Latter-day Saints to follow our leaders and to accept their counsel, but we have the greater obligation to gain for ourselves the unshakable testimony of the divine appointment of these men and the witness that what they have told us is the will of our Heavenly Father.”10
President Joseph F. Smith concurred: “I do not believe in obeying man, only when my judgment or the inspiration of the Almighty tells me that obedience to that man will be wise and good. In other words, I am not a believer in blind obedience. I think those who know me can bear record to my testimony that I never yet obeyed any man, nor have I to my knowledge obeyed God, blindly. What I have done I have done with my eyes open. I have done it willingly, because I have believed or have known it to be good.”11
But what about President Wilford Woodruff’s assurance that the Lord would never allow the prophet to lead the Church astray?12 Some have given this statement an inappropriately strict interpretation, but what did President Woodruff actually mean? Obviously, he was not claiming that the prophet will never make a misstatement of fact or never utter anything but the mind and will of God. In other words, he was not claiming that the prophet is infallible. If we look at the context in which this statement was given, President Woodruff was defending the Manifesto that ended polygamy and was trying to assure the members, many of whom were reluctant to give up the practice of plural marriage, that this was the will of the Lord. Certainly, as the CES Institute manual for the Doctrine and Covenants suggests, he was claiming only that the prophet would never lead the people into apostasy, not that the prophet is infallible in all things.13
Referring to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s statement that “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such,”14 Elder John A. Widtsoe commented:
That statement makes a clear distinction between official and unofficial actions and utterances of officers of the Church. In this recorded statement the Prophet Joseph Smith recognizes his special right and duty, as the President and Prophet of the Church, under the inspiration of the Lord, to speak authoritatively and officially for the enlightenment and guidance of the Church. But he claims also the right, as other men, to labor and rest, to work and play, to visit and discuss, to present his opinions and hear the opinions of others, to counsel and bless as a member of the Church.”15
In short, even when the prophet speaks, we have a responsibility to determine whether what he has told us is the word of God. President J. Reuben Clark explained: “He is God’s sole mouthpiece on earth for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only true Church. He alone may declare the mind and will of God to his people. No officer of any other Church in the world has this high right and lofty prerogative.”16 But President Clark elaborated, “We can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only when we, ourselves, are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.”17
Restoring a Degree of Democracy
Although, as mentioned above, the democratic impulse in the Church has been suppressed for a long time, it is possible that this aspect of Mormonism is reviving somewhat in our day because of the Internet. The recent online tempest over the Church’s announced policies regarding children of same-sex marriages produced an interesting reaction. After the initial announcement, the bloggernacle and various forms of social media exploded with critiques of the new policies that revealed certain problem areas and exposed potentially tragic scenarios. Basically, the Internet gave ordinary members a channel through which they could communicate with top Church leaders, something that the size of the Church and the opacity of the hierarchical structure have prevented in recent decades. As a consequence, within a few days, the Church announced a “clarification” of the policy. Since the Church can’t admit that its leaders ever make mistakes, this is the euphemism that was chosen to backtrack from some of the harsher language in the initial announcement. I will refrain from making any judgment on either the original policy or the “clarification,” but the fact that the Church responded to the outcry of its members with a revision of a policy suggests that the Internet has restored a degree of democracy that has been absent in the Church for decades. I do see this as a wholly positive development, quite consistent with the principles upon which the Church was founded.
1. “Ward Teachers’ Message for June, 1945: ‘Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church,’” Improvement Era, June 1945, 354.
2. “A 1945 Perspective,” Dialogue 19 (Spring 1986): 38.
3. N. Eldon Tanner, “The Debate Is Over,” Ensign, August 1979, 2.
4. James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism (1919; Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1948), 38–40.
5. B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 362, emphasis added.
6. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 5:265 (hereafter cited as History of the Church).
7. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855–56), 1:312, February 20, 1853. As I indicated in a previous post, the printed text in the Journal of Discourses likely differs significantly from what the speakers actually said. But we should also be aware that Brigham Young probably approved the printed versions of at least his own speeches, even if they had been edited substantially.
8. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 8:59, May 20, 1860.
9. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 9:150, January 12, 1862.
10. Harold B. Lee, Conference Report, Oct. 1950, 130, emphasis added.
11. Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report, April 1899, emphasis added.
12. See “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff regarding the Manifesto,” Doctrine and Covenants.
13. Enrichment F, “‘As If from Mine Own Mouth’: The Role of Prophets in the Church,” Doctrine and Covenants Institute Student Manual, accessed at http://institute.lds.org/manuals/doctrine-and-covenants-institute-student-manual/dc-in-200-d-f-f.asp.
14. History of the Church, 5:265
15. John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1951), 1:182.
16. Church News, July 31, 1954, 10.
17. Church News, July 31, 1954, 9.